In 1998, Transaction Publishers reissued The Vital Center, a 1949 book by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. that stressed the importance of avoiding totalitarian ideologies.* In his introduction to the new edition, Schlesinger explained why he originally wrote it. I believe his thoughts have resonance today.
Our philosophical presuppositions were inadequate to the ghastly realities of the age in which we lived. My generation had been brought up to regard human nature as benign and human progress as inevitable. The existing deficiencies of society, it was supposed, could be cured by education and by the improvement of social arrangements. Sin and evil were theological superstitions irrelevant to political analysis. But Hitler and Stalin had shown that evil was real enough and very likely lurked in all human hearts.
Sadly, every generation needs to relearn the lesson that Professor Schlesinger so ably taught us in 1949. The renowned historian and advisor to John F. Kennedy observed that “by 1941 there were only about a dozen democracies left on the planet.” The world lost faith in democracy after the Great War, and globalization has led many to lose faith in it today. Schlesinger ended his 1998 introduction by asking a question.
Might the frustrations and fears that gave rise to the totalitarian movements of the 1930s return tomorrow in different guise? Unless democracy can expand opportunity for men and women to live fulfilled lives, the ‘escape from freedom’ might beckon and the search for alternatives recur.
I am hopeful that the tragedy of Ukraine will cause us to renew our commitment to democracy and a democratic global consensus. The challenge is great today. Freedom House notes that “attacks on democratic institutions are spreading faster than ever in Europe and Eurasia, and coalescing into a challenge to democracy itself.” In his final words in The Vital Center, Schlesinger challenged us to recommit ourselves to democracy.
The commitment is complex and rigorous. When has it not been so? If democracy cannot produce the large resolute breed of men capable of the climactic effort, it will founder. Out of the effort, out of the struggle alone, can come the high courage and faith which will preserve freedom.
We need to add the word women today, a fact that Schlesinger himself recognized. Yet, we did meet the great man’s challenge and I believe that we can regain the high courage and faith necessary to preserve freedom once again.
* 2.) Schlesinger, A., 1998. The vital center. 6th ed. New Brunswick (N.J.): Transaction Publishers, p. Introduction, 256.